Still Munching

Growing up, my family ate everything, well, family style. All meals, whether stir-fry or barbecue, came out in serving dishes on the table. Even ostensibly single serving meals like hamburgers or baked potatoes were usually assembled away from the table from the big stack of food and brought over. Even these days, Julie and I often cook family style between the two of us. Portion sizes for 2 aren’t too hard to figure out, though we will often leave a half-serving of food behind for tupperware.

As such, one great contrast in restaurant food is getting a complete plate, with grains, veggies, and meat all at different clock positions. With a full plate in front of me, I feel compelled to finish as much of it as possible or to give up early for a doggie bag. There’s something about having everything already on my plate that pushes me to eat a little more, where seeing an equal portion in the serving dish doesn’t. The strange world of individual servings at home adds an element of restaurant fanciness, but also makes me overeat slightly more than I normally would.

Munchery: Take 2

Our meal schedule has been somewhat erratic for the past month, so Julie and I couldn’t commit to any of the full-week meal options recently. Despite lapsing on that, we were able to order Munchery to fill in an unusual day, and it was quite convenient. Even without considering the number of meals, it was much more convenient because we ordered our meals for the next day, while Plated needed to be ordered several days in advance. Continue reading “Still Munching”

Getting dinner Plated

Targeted ads seem to work pretty well these days. After publishing my blog post about Munchery, I started regularly getting ads for Plated on Facebook. They were quite conspicuous on my newsfeed with a list of friends who had also liked Plated.

I guess it worked, however, because I ended up using the promotion via Facebook to use Plated. The discount was worth it, but I do feel dirty about it because according to the marketing numbers, I just validated advertising my Facebook feed. Yikes.

Plated: Take 1

Plated is a service that creates menus and delivers ingredients to your home for exactly those meals. You can prepare the meal basically from scratch without having to find recipes or do any grocery shopping. Continue reading “Getting dinner Plated”

Introducing the Dinner Table Tournament

table-147314_640Long ago, humans discovered fire and began to cook their food. Not soon after, they began to complain about eating the food cooked yesterday and why they couldn’t go out and hunt or forage for new food instead.

Fast forward to today, and not much has changed. Basically, there are 2 options: going out or staying in. I grew up in a “staying in” household, where my mom cooked everyday except for leftovers. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on the recipe), my mom is not around to provide for me on a daily basis. On the other hand, the options for staying in have changed dramatically. No longer are we restricted to cooking or ordering pizza delivery. We can:

  • shop for groceries and cook dinner like always
  • skip shopping for groceries and have groceries delivered
  • skip coming up with a grocery list and have ingredients for a meal prepackaged with a recipe
  • skip the cooking and have an equivalent to a home meal delivered
  • skip the delivery and eat in someone else’s home
  • skip the “home meal” restriction and order delivery from a restaurant
  • skip talking to the restaurant and order through a delivery service

I bet some cavemen would have literally killed to get their meals like that.

I tend to believe that the old ways are the best ways and try to cook more often than not. Despite it just being myself and Julie, I believe in the value of family dinners and cooking at home. We spend time working together by cooking. I think we tend to make more nutritious meals. Meals around the dinner table are a time for bonding and tradition.

But I can understand why many people don’t do it. Cooking requires planning when our lives seem more unpredictable than ever. It takes a long time to prepare, eat, and clean up when we don’t have enough time anyways. Most of us don’t cook well, and almost all of us don’t cook restaurant-quality food. Instead, we go out to eat, or pick up fast food, or microwave a TV dinner.

We make compromises in our daily lives, and new “staying in” options can help to find that balance. Although I come into this with strong biases towards cooking, I also am an adventurous eater and need ways to generate blog content. Therefore, I (and by extension and some duress, Julie) will embark on a months long hunt through many dinner acquisition services to find out what works and what doesn’t. We will judge our meals and experiences and share those thoughts on this blog. Here are some of the criteria we will be considering:

  1. Nutrition. Did the meal look balanced? Is this a sustainable diet?
  2. Taste. Did it taste good? Would I eat this every day?
  3. Convenience. How was the experience of getting and preparing the food? Does it generally fit into my life?
  4. Experience. Overall, how was dinner? Did it address the peripheral, related aspects of a home dinner?

Julie and I have discussed many options so far (and we’re open to more suggestions, but so far, we have come up with CSA, Instacart, Plated, Blue Apron, HelloFresh, Munchery, delivery, DoorDash, and EatWith. We are open to any other suggestions as well

To spice up our meals, I want to put out an open invitation for dinner guests. I would be worried about regularly having friends try our usual dinners, but this series of experiments seems like a perfect opportunity to share the experience. To fulfill such a role, the qualifications are:

  1. actually knowing Julie or me
  2. transporting yourself to be physically, preferably punctually present at our place
  3. informing us of any dietary restrictions or strong preferences you might have
  4. helping with meal preparation as necessary for the selected service
  5. contributing opinions freely to be shared in future blog posts

Note that the requirements do not include paying for your meal. As guests, we will be providing for your meal.

Along the way, I may provide some musings about food, cooking, hosting, or other related topics. Stay tuned, and let me know via any contact method if you wish to join us for dinner. Even you lurkers who I have barely talked to in my life: you’re all welcome!

My Lessons from Hosting Thanksgiving

You might be wondering how I can post about having hosted Thanksgiving in the middle of November. Although it is true that I am Canadian, that isn’t the reason this time. Actually, Zanbato has an annual tradition of holding a team Thanksgiving a week or two before actual Thanksgiving, where we can share (hopefully) delicious food and get an early start on the holiday season feeling.

Last year, I did an ethnic twist and made it a Chinese Thanksgiving, with the turkey cooked in the style of Peking duck and with various Asian-themed sides. This year, I did a Tex-Mex Thanksgiving, and I dare say it went quite well. Here are pictures of how the food turned out (recipes available on foodmarks):

Overall, I think most of the dishes came out quite well. The pecan pie had some baking issues but ended up tasting fine. As gratifying as that is, however, I think the best part of the experience for me was how smoothly it went. In years past, I have been frantically cooking up to the last minute with pots and pans and kitchen tools scattered around my kitchen. This year, I cooked at a leisurely pace and was able to pop in and out of the kitchen when guests arrived. I ended up only needing Julie’s help for the last 15 minutes or so, and everything came out on-time. Here is what I think the difference was:

1. I picked recipes that that don’t need to be done right before serving.

A lot of dishes must be served fresh, or they lose their texture or temperature or flavor. When I picked the dishes, I deliberately picked dishes that could be done ahead of time so I didn’t need to do 5 things right before serving dinner. I think it was also important to do desserts that didn’t need prep, either. Both the pecan pie and flan basically needed to be paired with a serving utensil, and they were ready.

2. I threw in a couple gimme recipes as well.

At some point, I realized that it wasn’t worth putting a lot of work into baking things for most people. Most people don’t really care if you spent hours putting together a layer cake or swirling a batter in a certain way: they’re usually just happy that you did something homemade. This probably extends to cooking in general, so I put queso on the list as a great but very easy appetizer dip and salad. These buff out the menu without significant work.

3. I planned out my oven and stove usage.

It’s a bad surprise to find out that you need your veggies at 400 F and dessert at 350 F at the same time in the oven, or that you have to use the big saute pan for two things. I charted out my oven usage by the half-hour to make sure that I could get everything done, with some wiggle room as well

4. I setup my place during downtime.

Were I better prepared, the furniture, cleanup, and flatware would have been done ahead of time. I wasn’t that prepared, but I did manage to knock out a lot of that while the turkey was cooking. Although most of my attention is on the food, a good dinner party should have a good environment as well.

5. I took notes from last year.

I pulled up my recipes from last year to see approximately how much food I made for how many people, and I went over the mistakes from last time. There was a lot to learn.

Overall, I would say that the big takeaway here is: don’t leave anything to the last minute. Having a plan is good. Having experience to know what needs to be planned is better. With that in mind, I was able to put together a good experience for my guests without getting frazzled myself. I wouldn’t be surprised if this advice doesn’t really extend much past myself or perhaps is too obvious, but hopefully I’ll continue to improve as a Thanksgiving host in the coming years!

The Sounds and Sights of Cheap Dim Sum

(Author’s note:I wrote this Sunday night)

Good dim sum should come in large, cheap portions. In my mind, you need real, Chinese people making the food, and if they can stay in business with low prices, it means that that the food itself is really good and that they aren’t wasting money on decor and American standards of cleanliness.

New Hwong Kok in Milpitas fits this description. My friend Brain referred it to me, and with the $6 dim sum lunch special equivalent to 3 or 4 items at sit-down dim sum, I thin it’s great. You get the food in a takeout container, there are only 2 tables, and the service is neither good nor bad: it’s simply a necessity in executing a financial transaction involving delicious food.

When I stepped outside this morning to grab dim sum, I stopped to consider whether I wanted to bring my water bottle or not. I might want it in the car, but the main benefit would be to eat there. It was unlikely I would get a table, but if I did, my food would be 20 minutes warmer. I wouldn’t eat dim sum from the comfort of my own kitchen table, but that seemed acceptable.

It ended up being the right call. When I finished paying and turned to leave, I saw that the old Chinese lady at one of the tables had left, so I swooped down and sat in the dinky shop. To my left, a row of fridge cases cooled ingredients and bulk packaged buns, which I suspect were repackaged leftovers from the previous day. In front of me, a mother (or grandmother: don’t tell me you can tell the difference with non-ancient Asian women) was trying to get her rambunctious son, sitting across her at the table, to finish his meal. To my right, a steady line of 5 or 6 people in 2 or 3 parties inched towards being served. Beside them were the display cases of buns and stacks of metal steamers of dumplings.

I ate my food and watched and listened to the people passing through. I heard clutches of Mandarin in orders, and I heard even more Cantonese that I could only occasionally understand. My Cantonese comprehension is at an awkwardly smug level: I can legitimately say that I can’t speak at all and can only understand some of what my grandparents say, so I am justifiably humble. I know enough random food words, however, to randomly bust out translations to show off. I rarely encounter concentrated Chinese groups these days, yet I strangely feel at ease despite not understanding most of the situation.

As I ate, I realized that the familiarity wasn’t strange: how rarely I encounter these situations was strange. The Bay Area has a solid Chinese population, but I don’t interact with it much. Had I pulled out my phone to browse reddit while eating, I wouldn’t have felt so connected to the Chinese boy running around the shop with a lightsaber tucked in the back of his shirt. Had I not brought my water bottle, I would have gone home to eat and missed a 3 year old Chinese girl clearly apprehensive of an old Chinese lady introduced as an “aunt” by her mom. And had I decided just to stay home and have eggs and toast for breakfast, I couldn’t listen in to an apparently impossible explanation of how the customer wants not 1, but orders of the egg noodles.

I have so many ways to avoid interacting with or even just noticing my environment, my neighbors, and generally the world around me. When I’m washing dishes, brushing my teeth, or doing other mindless tasks, I feel compelled to play a podcast to absorb my higher-level thoughts. When I do get outside, I often look down at the sidewalk or road before me and daydream. I miss out on the unique houses on my commute or the soccer game in the park. And perhaps the greatest struggle is even getting outside by convincing myself that the stimulation of the outside world is more valuable than working on a side project at home or catching up on TV.

So I have recently tried hard to be zen-like and empty my mind. On my drive to New Hwong Kok this morning, I turned off the radio and just enjoyed the beautiful day (and watched the traffic, of course). I brought my journal to the dinner table to write while eating dinner, then decided to open the window and just listen to the birds chirping and children playing in the park.

Maybe I can squeeze my daily Duolingo into dinner and attack my TODO list more efficiently. Maybe sitting at New Hwong Kok could have been an utterly boring and soul-sucking experience. But for now, I need the chance to not absorb my attention, not to focus on a virtual world, not to turn inwards on my thoughts. Instead, I need to just take in the world around one, one thing at a time.

Mostly Vegetarian

I consider myself “mostly vegetarian.” I have heard other terms for similar diets such as “flexitarian” or “weekday vegetarian,” but both of these are probably too generous for what I do. Most of the time, I don’t eat meat, but sometimes I will. Despite many of my lifestyle choices being defined as absolutes, avoiding meat entirely is just too hard. I started this maybe 2 years ago around the time I started cooking for myself, and it mainly came from 2 reasons. Continue reading “Mostly Vegetarian”

Why I Ate Cake for Breakfast

Julie’s birthday was last weekend, and I made her a chocolate avocado cake as part of the avocado potluck birthday party. Since Julie had also received a chocolate cake from her mom, I kept the leftovers of my cake at home and ate it over the next weekend, and I finished it for breakfast this morning*.

I haven’t done it for awhile, but I am very familiar with eating cake for breakfast. My earliest recollections of breakfast are Flintstones yellow cakes with with way too much frosting. Since then, breakfast for me has included all types of cereal, waffles, waffles with a pile of ice cream on it, ramen, steak, sausage, fried rice, hot pockets, buttered toast, toast with a layer of brown sugar on it, bagels, pasta, yogurt, and anything else you would have found from my fridge, pantry, or last night’s dinner. Thankfully, my breakfast has evened out to oatmeal on an average of just under 5 days a week. I’m surprised that a mother-endorsed diet of ice cream for breakfast led to a pretty healthy outcome.

I’m not really sure if this was her intent, but my mom’s genius in allowing me to eat this way is that I always eat breakfast. Long after many of my friends stopped eating breakfast during high school or college, I will always arrange for something to eat shortly after waking up. Popular nutrition says that eating breakfast is very important, and though their advice probably wouldn’t include ice cream, it seems I ended up in the right place.

I maybe didn’t eat ice cream for breakfast as often as I’m suggesting here. I actually mostly ate leftovers, which I still happily eat for all meals. I had always assumed that this was another food preference I may have inherited or been stuck with because of the rest of my family. For example, my grandpa doesn’t like garlic, so my mom didn’t make stirfrys with garlic, so I don’t either. My sister Lisa didn’t like eggs in fried rice, so I didn’t discover it until college. And my mom doesn’t like green bean casserole, so it never appeared on our Thanksgiving dinner table. Given that I did eat leftovers often, I assumed our family was a leftover loving family.

I was understandably shocked, then, when my mom revealed to me over dinner 2 weeks ago that she didn’t like leftovers. When I pointed out that I had eaten lots of leftovers growing up, she looked up from her bowl of chow mein straight at me and said with complete sincerity, “Yeah, you ate the leftovers.” In the ensuing conversation, it started to make sense. My mom really did cook 7 days a week when I was growing up, and the only leftovers I actually can remember her eating was ground pork and tofu with rice and turkey sandwiches. Everything else in the fridge was mine.

I was a little miffed to find out that my mom was using me as a garbage can. I had grown up assuming that I was the beneficiary of all food choices. The classic example is that when we had chicken, my mom would let us have the meat while she would gnaw at the bones, and when my grandparents were there, my mom would pass those bones onto them and enjoy more of the meat herself. That was just a good parent-child relationship.

Now, all of my mom’s parenting choices appear to have worked out, though some weren’t perhaps as thoughtful and selfless as I may have once believed. Apparently, a common misperception that first-time parents have is that they have brought into the world a beautiful, perfect child, and unless they do everything just right for their child, life is just going to chip away at that innocence and potential. Clearly, my parents lost that notion by the time they had me, the last of three children, but it seems like they might have gotten things right, at least on a few of these points.

And now that I have grown up and see my own friends having kids, I’m starting to see that parents aren’t all-knowing. They’re people just like me, with their own foibles and needs, so many parenting choices aren’t made strictly for the benefit of their children. But it’s okay: a few of those maybe thoughtless choices led to me eating my oatmeal for breakfast while amused about having once, long ago, eaten ice cream for breakfast for an entire week.

 

* Not really this morning. The perspective works better from when I came up with this post in my head on my bike ride last Thursday

Making Porridge Like My Mom

The week before Thanksgiving, I made a Thanksgiving dinner for my coworkers and used it as a small housewarming event. The menu was traditional and mostly new for me, especially the turkey. The only large piece of meat I cooked before was corned beef slowly on my stove, so I consulted various sources in advance. The expected cooking surprise came when I discovered that my cooking thermometer was dead, so I didn’t know how well the turkey was cooked. It turns out that it was overcooked, but expectations are low, and people are generally so gracious about a home-cooked meal that it doesn’t really matter.

Then came the leftovers filling my fridge. I knew to save the turkey carcass for some purpose, and a few days later, I made rice porridge (congee) with it. That also required a phone call home, and although my result was much thicker than anything my mom ever made, I thought it turned out quite well. I also threw together a breakfast hash with potatoes, brussels sprouts, turkey, and more. There were the beloved turkey sandwiches, and the plates of reheated Thanksgiving meals as a whole as well.

The porridge remains the most remarkable leftover, however, because I now realize why my family always ate it the day after Thanksgiving: there’s a carcass to use as a base. My mom would likely make some vaguely patronizing sound were I to mention this directly to her, but I’m still impressed by the pragmatism of this tradition that I didn’t realize was a tradition. Every Thankgiving, there is a turkey. Every turkey will leave behind a carcass. Every carcass can make porridge. Tradition established.

A few years ago, my then-roommate Ben and I were talking, and I said, “Tradition and convention could just be the wisdom of many generations, refined towards best practices.” This gave Ben pause, since I think he bucks convention as he sees fit, and it gave me pause, because I was really thinking about what I was saying.

At least as often as we honor tradition, we also make light of it, like methods of courtship or the number of candles on a birthday cake. Traditional foods, particularly, get a lot of attention, like lutefisk or mooncake. Some traditions do start on a whim and perhaps don’t deserve any special respect.

Other traditions perhaps do have more to them to have lasted so long. For example, turkey is a common target for traditional foods: cooks claim it’s bland and dry and only remains on the menu in place of better meats because of Thanksgiving traditions. What’s best about a turkey, however, is its size and value. For a holiday meant to bring families and friends together, we just want a lot of food, and a turkey can serve much more than a chicken. Without breaking the bank on steak for 20, turkey is easy to do as a home-cooked meal to share with others. And when we’re stuck with a 12 pound turkey and not enough people around, it encourages us to reach out to fill seats.

So maybe it seems odd that Thanksgiving should lead to a full table with a not-so-beloved bird in the middle, but at least there’s a full table. Even the biggest turkey-haters (or vegetarians) can’t dislike a gathering. In fact, maybe the biggest turkey-lovers just have positive associations about the company, not the bird. Either way, enjoy the turkey, porridge, or whatever else and believe in the old ways.

My Life in Sandwiches

Last week, Julie and I got around to visiting The Melt, a startup grilled cheese restaurant. Well, the “startup” claim might be a stretch: I think their claim to the title is their fancy grilled cheese making machine invented especially for this purpose that makes their preassembled sandwiches a breeze to prepare. And having tasted 2 of their offerings (Julie and I go halfsies on all meals), I have determined that it was probably all just a bunch of hype. If you want a grilled cheese sandwich in the Bay Area, the American Grilled Cheese Kitchen is in SOMA and is far better.

I have actually ended up at a lot of sandwich places in the area. For a summer, George and I made a dedicated effort to try the pizza places in Palo Alto. For a few years, Julie and I have made a dedicated effort to try the sandwich places in Palo Alto because she’s always excited to try and never forgets the opportunity for a new sandwich.

Not to say I’m opposed. In some ways, I feel like my life was destined towards sandwich enjoyment. For 12 years, my regular school lunch was a sandwich packed by my mom. In retrospect, the offering was somewhat simple: it was usually a single thin slice of some cold cut and a piece of romaine lettuce between 2 slices of bread, once homemade but then store-bought once we moved to Houston. On good days, I would also get a slice of cheese, usually havarti. In that time, I became a huge fan of corned beef, but came to dislike turkey (since it was often kind of slimy).

The summer after my freshmen year, I became aware of other sandwich methods as George would use more meat and sometimes put Kraft singles in his sandwiches, too. I became a fan of the former, if not the latter, but more importantly, I realized that sandwiches could have more variety than I had eaten before. The summer after, Leland added cured meats to his sandwiches in addition to the primary meat, which added another dimension. Last summer, I started making vegetarian sandwiches, and tomatoes, which I had once disliked (probably why my mom’s sandwiches for me were so simple), became a mainstay. And this summer, I started regularly adding mayo to my sandwiches. After 12 years of almost daily sandwiches, I think I’m far beyond ever getting tired of them, and clearly there are always new things to change up the experience.

In case you’re ever on campus for the day, or maybe if you’re tired of Stanford Dining, I made a map of the sandwich places I’ve tried. Most are heartily endorsed, so let me know if you ever need a companion to go along!


View Sandwiches around Stanford in a larger map